Friday, July 17, 2009

Fear Chamber, The (1968)

...aka: Cámara del terror, La
...aka: Chamber of Fear
...aka: Torture Chamber, The
...aka: Torture Zone

Directed by:
Jack Hill
Juan Ibáñez

Scientists Corinne (Julissa) and Mark (Carlos East) are exploring underneath a volcano with their "detector" when they stumble upon a strange, living rock. Meanwhile, a woman named Luisa strips down to her bra and panties and goes to bed. A dwarf (Santanón) visits her while she sleeps and when she wakes up the next morning, she finds herself in a bizarre, colorfully-lit, cobweb-strewn "fear chamber" full of unusual and creepy stuff. The dwarf is there. And so is some guy wearing white gloves, a white turban and sunglasses who threatens her with a lizard, and a sexy woman in leather who slaps her around. Skeletons, skulls and candles decorate the walls, spiders and snakes are all over the place and a pool of glowing red water has eels in it and some huge tentacle! The girl screams and screams and screams some more; finally making it to a torture room where a robed man (played by Boris Karloff) - demands "Bring on the sinner!" Another female is dragged into the room by hooded henchmen, is tied over a fire pit and then stabbed to death. Next up is Luisa, who's snatched up, brought to the table and passes out... and then thing start getting stranger than they already were.

Karloff's character enters through another door and finds himself in some kind of futuristic, brightly-lit clinic where it's revealed he's not actually a cult member, but a scientist. Dr. Carl Mandel (Boris), his evil, voyeuristic lesbian assistant Helga (Isela Vega), Corinne (his daughter), Mark (her boyfriend), Roland (a lobotomized mental defective with a diamond fetish played by Yerye Beirute) and some others are caring for the rock they'd found earlier, which apparently survives by eating special hormones produced by females when they're frightened! The scientists ponder whether its ethical or not to lure women there under false pretenses (they also run a bogus employment agency!) and then extract their blood while they're passed out, and are also having problems with that turbaned guy, who's been fooling around with the unconscious victims. Dr. Mandel ends up getting electrocuted and the experiments are put on hold, but Roland befriends and bonds with the rock monster and communicates with it telepathically (!), and he and Helga plot to continue on in the experiments against Mandel's wishes. The rock soon becomes powerful enough to take live victims whole, and it turns the sexy young women it gets ahold of (including a stripper) into withered old hags.

It's pretty awful, confusing, weird and horribly dubbed, but somewhat entertaining in a slapdash Z movie kind of way... at least for awhile. My interest level seemed to drop off about 30 minutes in once the bizarro plot was fully established and the film then really had nowhere else to go, though there's still the occasional laugh (especially Roland's "I'm gonna be da kang of dee world!" rants at the end). The torture chamber sets are actually pretty cool, though!
Notable mainly for containing Karloff's last actual screen appearance. The actor spends most of his time in the first half sitting at a desk, and most of his time in the second half lying in a bed. His footage was shot in Santa Monica by director Hill in May of 1968 (the film itself wasn't released until 1972), which was then combined with what Ibáñez shot in Mexico. The same exact technique was used for three other last minute Karloff features (all of which are varying degrees of bad); the haunted house movie DANCE OF DEATH (also with Julissa), the voodoo movie SNAKE PEOPLE (with Julissa, East and Santanón) and the alien movie THE SINISTER INVASION (with Beirute).


Yabu no naka no kuroneko (1968)

...aka: Black Cat, The
...aka: Black Cat from the Grove
...aka: Kuroneko

Directed by:
Kaneto Shindô

Shindô's terrific companion piece to his highly-regarded ONIBABA (1964) is nearly as good. A group of samurai casually invade a farm house where two women live. They steal their food and water, gang rape them, murder them and then burn down their home. The victims - elder Yone (the excellent Nobuko Otowa, returning from ONIBABA) and her daughter-in-law Shige (Kiwako Taichi) - have made a pact with an evil God; they can return to human form in exchange for killing and drinking the blood of every samurai they happen to come across. Late at night, at Rajomon Gate - their village's city square - Shige waits patiently for any chivalrous samurai passing through the area and then asks if they'll accompany her home. The men are then led down a long, dark path, invited inside, given enough sake to get them drunk, are tempted with sex and then have their throats chewed out by the stealthy, cat-like seductresses. Meanwhile, Gintoki (Kichiemon Nakamura), Yone's son and Shige's husband, who was drafted to go to war three years earlier, has returned home only to find the charred remnants of his former home and is family missing. Now a war hero and high ranking samurai himself after slaying a powerful barbarian, Gintoki is hired by the village's prejudicial police chief Raiko (Kei Sato, also from ONIBABA) to kill the "monster" responsible for the recent series of samurai slayings.

While patrolling Rajomon Gate one evening, Gintoki comes across a veiled Shige, who lures him back to her home. Though Shige and Yone try to hide their identities at first (a pact they made with the evil God states they cannot reveal who they are or why they are killing samurai or else face spending eternity in hell), it's all too obvious to Gintoki that's he finally located his missing family. Shige risks all by starting a passionate affair with her former husband instead of killing him, while Gintoki is given an ultimatum from Raiko to either kill the women or be killed himself.

A lot of the themes (revenge, ghosts, the black cat, loyalty to family, class status...) contained here were very common themes in Japanese cinema during this time. How the film deconstructs the myth of the samurai; stripping down a profession once blindly regarded as strictly "noble" and "respectable" and turning into something more shaded, was also something common. Just like those in any high-ranking position, power is abused and many samurai used their status as an excuse to terrorize and commit crimes against those their arrogance led them to believe were lesser or expendable (namely farmers, peasants and women). In regard to these themes the film is somewhat familiar, but this is so well-made it doesn't really matter. It's very well acted by all four of the principals and superbly photographed in b/w by Kiyomi Kuromi (who won a major Japanese film award for his work here; as did Otowa). The lighting is highly stylized (sometimes images are even spot-lit to stand out) and Takashi Marumo's art direction is also exceptional (and clever), particularly inside the ladies' new home, which is done with a symmetrical/vertical theme that nearly blends the interiors with the thick bamboo fields located right outside. The characters are given enough conflicts of conscience to keep the emotional content compelling, and the horror/supernatural elements are eerie; sometimes jarring even.
So if you haven't seen this or ONIBABA, plan a double-feature as soon as you can to check out two of the decade's very best films. Amazingly, the director is still busy writing and directing to this very day... at the age of 97!

Stripped to Kill (1987)

Directed by:
Katt Shea

What happens when you hire a competent female writer/director to make a low-budget T&A horror-thriller with a strip club setting? You get compromise, and a kind of tug-of-war effect between exploitation and realism. While this one has a more-than-generous amount of T&A and violence, it should also be given credit for delivering a gritty, credible and often unflattering look inside a strip club and the women who populate it. The dancing is explored for all its worth and from all possible angles; exploitation, entertainment, eroticism, even as art. Some of the dancers view their occupation as being a way to express themselves through dance while others think of it as just a paycheck for another night's work. A few are lesbians, some have drug problems, most have criminal records and a few even seem like reasonably well-adjusted women who just happen to find stripping unpredictable and exciting. The club itself is so atmospherically represented that you can almost smell the cigarette smoke in the hallways. The door of the girl's dressing room, the congregation place where the girls change into their costumes, bitch about customers, reflect on their lives and pasts, etc., has "Women" scratched out and "Sluts" amusingly spray-painted over it. Much of the dialogue between them is laced with cynicism, no doubt based on a life's worth of problems, failures and disappointments. All of the girls are given just enough personality to be likable and what seems seedy at first eventually turns into a somewhat accommodating place for outcasts of all types once the heroine of this film gains employment as one of the dancers.
The heroine is question is a reserved tomboy policewoman played by Kay Lenz, who goes undercover at the club when a serial killer begins targeting the strippers. Sure, we've seen this exact same plot many times before (at least I have), but this movie takes it a step further. Not only is Lenz trying to crack the case but her character is learning and opening up in the process. This assignment allows her an outlet from the male dominated police force and the opportunity to explore her femininity and sexuality. She also discovers an odd kinship and inner working between the women and gets a little too involved on a personal level. It's an interesting role and Lenz (a sorely overlooked actress over the years) is great in it. And yeah, she does several nude scenes and looks great doing so, but it's a thoughtful, very good performance that doesn't rely on her nude scenes to be memorable. Norman Fell also has a great supporting role as the no-nonsense club owner, who's every bit as dry, cynical and world-weary as his girls.
The biggest gripe I see about this film is that there are too many dance scenes and they're too long. This is no doubt just filling executive producer Roger Corman's quotient of T&A for direct-to-video profit. Well fine, we get the naked girls and get the stripping. Plenty of each. What I don't see usually pointed out is that the dance scenes themselves are entertaining. They usually incorporate some interesting props (motorcycles, fire, a giant spider web...) or have a specific theme and with the lighting mixed in, it does come off as performance art at times. In addition, you can tell the women hired in these roles are actually either professionally trained dancers or actual strippers (or ex-strippers) because their stage performances incorporate flips, splits and a flexibility that requires dance training. The soundtrack is full of dated 80s-style rock, usually with a female vocalist, but it's tolerable. The biggest problem I had with the film is that the slasher movie plot seems almost an unnecessary afterthought. I was far more interested in the everything else that was going on that I almost lost complete interest in who was actually killing the strippers.
Without question, Katt Shea is one of the most talented writer-directors Corman employed in the 80s and 90s. She was one of the few with the ability to transcend the formulaic material and anemic budgets to create films that are distinctive, thoughtful, personal and interesting. And like many other notable cult/underground directors, she has never, and may never, receive much recognition or attention, and that's a true shame. I especially recommend her films DANCE OF THE DAMNED (1988; an intriguing and original vampire film which has sadly slipped into obscurity over the years) and STREETS (1990; a grim drama/thriller starring Christina Applegate as a teenage prostitute hunted by a serial killer). While STRIPPED TO KILL might not be as impressive as the aforementioned films, and a bit more weighted down and padded out, it's still a bright starting point for the director and well worth checking out.
Also with Greg Evigan as Lenz's chauvenist partner/love interest, Diana Bellamy and Debra Lamb (who also appeared in the 1989 sequel - STRIPPED TO KILL II: LIVE GIRLS).

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